I’m not sure what to make of Peter Matthiessen’s novel In Paradise. I’ve never read Matthiessen before but I have wanted to read his nonfiction book Snow Leopard for quite some time. I have never been especially interested in his fiction. But as things work out in odd ways sometimes, it is his fiction I read first.
It also happens that Matthiessen died in April of this year, just a few days before In Paradise was published. What made me want to read this book if what I really wanted to read was his nonfiction? I read a glowing review that made the book sound so very special that I immediately placed my name on the library hold list for it. My turn has come and, while the writing is good and Matthiessen raises some interesting issues and questions in the book, I did not find it to be particularly special in any way.
It is 1996 and we follow Clements Olin, poet, academic, expert in Holocaust literature, to a meditative retreat at Auschwitz. Early on we learn that Olin is of no particular religion (though we learn he was baptized Episcopalian), that his family is Polish, and even came from Oswiecim, the Polish name of the town the Germans call Auschwitz. His name is actually Olinski and his grandfather is a Baron. Olin was born in Poland just before the war. His father and father’s parents were able to leave for the United States. Olin’s mother did not go to the U.S. and the family will not talk about her. All he has of her is a photo, young and pretty leaning from a window in her family’s house, smiling at the photographer.
Olin isn’t especially interested in the retreat. His grandparents are dead and his father is recently deceased. All three had sternly insisted he never go to Poland. Now they are no longer around to stop him, he has decided to go and try and find out about his mother.
There are about 100 people at the retreat. They are actually staying at the concentration camp. Each morning they are to go sit on the train platform where the Jews were unloaded at the camp, and meditate. In the evenings there are short talks, but mainly anyone who feels compelled is invited to stand and talk. This causes all kinds of conflict as you can imagine because among those gathered are Jews from around the world, a few Holocaust survivors, some Buddhists, a former monk, the priest from the local Church, several nuns from a nearby convent, and a number of unaffiliated individuals like Olin and some non-Jewish Germans.
The Germans want to be absolved of the crimes their country committed. The Catholics want to mend fences but mostly refuse to admit the church’s complicity in sending all of the Jews in Oswiecim to die at the camp. And there is Mr. Earwig, an apt name for the most caustic of people. He calls it as he sees it and refuses to feel bad about hurting anyone’s feelings. No one can understand why he is even there. Of course, when we find out his story, it is heartbreaking.
And that is what kept me from finding this book special. Of course Mr. Earwig is so mean because he is in pain and has a tragic history. Of course we learn that Olin’s mother was actually Jewish, not Episcopalian, and died in the camp. Of course Olin feels romantic stirrings for a rebellious nun who also seems to feel something for him in return. Of course they each go their separate ways at the end, sadder but wiser. And then there is the ironic title. I could probably have put up with all of it if it hadn’t been for the love story. It felt artificial, a forced thing to show that there can be something beautiful even in the ugliest of places. On the plus side, all the emotions, anger, hatred, uncertainty and sadness the weeklong stay at Auschwitz stirs up are not easily cleansed and Matthiessen refuses to let everyone leave feeling healed and content. Our Mr. Earwig finds what he came looking for and leaves just as pissed off as he was when he arrived.
The writing itself is strong and sturdy. There is nothing maudlin about the tone nor is it overly serious or depressing. In spite of the volatility of the characters, the book remains careful and respectful. A bit too careful really. Overall not a bad book. I just failed to find what the reviewer I read believed was so special about it. If you decide to read it, I hope you find it.